Brian Rudman: Rest of NZ owes Auckland big time for roads

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Good riddance to the iniquitous double-fuel tax the Labour Government imposed on Aucklanders to help fund roading and public transport improvements.

Now all we need is for ill-informed commentators and politicians, such as Television One News, North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams and Labour transport spokesman Darren Hughes, to stop suggesting that abolishing the regional tax will be at the expense of the poor salt-of-the-earth crofters of provincial New Zealand.

For decades, Auckland fuel taxes have been flowing disproportionately out of the region into trophy roads through the empty expanses of Wairarapa and Canterbury and other National Party-voting rural strongholds.

The regional fuel tax was just another attempt by a provincial Minister of Finance, a Labour one this time, to maintain the imbalance.

On Monday night, the state broadcaster did a vox pop, asking a couple of provincials what they thought of having to pay for Auckland's roads and the response was predictably negative. Mr Hughes was on radio the next morning continuing the lie.

"It's going to mean that working families all around New Zealand are having to pay extra in their petrol tax for projects they'll never see.

It's pretty hard to see how the people on the West Coast are going to benefit from the decision of the Government to tax everybody for Auckland's projects."

Worst perhaps, was the grovelling press release issued by wannabe regional Lord Mayor, North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams.

He expressed his "heartfelt thanks to people in the provinces for their generous contribution towards sorting out Auckland's transport problems".

Addressing the people of Gore and Stratford and other remote places, he said: "We will be forever in debt to the people out in the provinces for their 6 per cent per litre contribution to the national fuel tax regime that will be the basis for increased funding for public transport in Auckland."

Bollocks. All the abolition of the regional fuel tax will do is restore a semblance of equity to the system.

In 1991, when Auckland's last attempt to get a light rail commuter service fell over for lack of Government support, the Auckland Regional Council revealed that Aucklanders paid $150 million on petrol taxes to Transit New Zealand, but only $84 million came back to the region in transport funding.

ARC member at the time, Gary Taylor, said: "Let's face it. Auckland is getting ripped off by Transit New Zealand. We should use some of the electoral muscle this region has and go to Wellington and exert it."

It didn't work. Between November 1993 and November 1999, under a National Government - with Aucklander Maurice Williamson as Transport Minister - only 25 per cent of Transit's income was spent north of Pukekohe despite just under 40 per cent of the tax-paying population living here.

In recent years, under the chairmanship of one-time Aucklander David Stubbs, and with pressure from board member and Labour Party president Aucklander Mike Williams, a fairer allocation of funds gradually came about.

Mr Williams recalls an early briefing from officials explaining Transit's main priority was a passing lane every 5km on rural state highways! That was changed.

It is worth remembering too, that there has never been any catch-up compensatory payouts for the decades of inequitable spending in the National-voting heartlands. So let's hear no more about Aucklanders having to feel grateful for the generosity of the peasants of Stratford and Gore.

That Auckland leaders like ARC chairman Mike Lee have been less than enthusiastic about the Government's latest transport funding announcement is understandable. The fuel tax at least provided a level of certainty to the funding of major new public transport initiatives such as the purchase of electric trains and integrated ticketing.

Despite Prime Minister Key's statement in support of rail electrification on Monday, it was almost an after-thought in a package which focused on new roads.

With the Auckland Regional Transport Authority on the verge of going to tender for new trains and an integrated ticketing system - based on the promise of regional fuel tax income - what was needed was certainty on alternatives, not vague commitments.

The resurrection of Auckland commuter rail has a history of last-minute failures.

In 1991, we were at much the same stage as now, with the ARC having gained 58 expressions of interest from around the world for a light rail system running down Queen St and along the existing rail corridors. It had the backing of the Railway Corporation and, by 1998, was to run from New Lynn to Papakura. It died for want of Government support.

In 1975, an electrified suburban rail network got the approval of the Kirk Labour Government only to be thrown out in 1976 by the incoming Muldoon National regime.

The air of gloom at regional headquarters is understandable.

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